Last week over lunch, a friend and I found ourselves musing over how it was that the blogosphere—meant to free us at last from the tyranny of media gatekeepers—so often wind up stampeding after the same trivia as cable networks anchored to a 24-hour news cycle. Look, I’m ODed on the health care debate too, but we really don’t have a better alternative conversation topic than some failed VP candidate’s trashy celebrity memoir? I mean, there’s this crazy secret copyright treaty that’s pretty interesting. Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve been flailing around trying to get, well, anyone to pay attention to this whole PATRIOT reauthorization thing. It’s not just Palin, really, it’s the whole freakshow parade of daily banalities. I want to believe the problem is the ol’ legacy media, still acting as lobotomized drum major for this unseemly spectacle, but if anything new media seem to be making it worse. In a lot of areas, swarm media really has diversified and deepened news consumption, but in politics it seems mostly to have lowered the bar for the minimum speck of chum required to spark a mass feeding-frenzy. At this rate I feel like 2012 may well be a three-way race between a LOLcat, Balloon Boy, and a hilarious YouTube of a masturbating chimp. What the hell is wrong with us? And why am I hopping on this moronic conga-line with a meta-post about how obnoxious it all is, instead of writing about all the substantive crap I wish someone would write about?
Yes, well. Ahem. A quick theory before I take my own advice. On the old media model, you had a whole array of reporters, producers, sources, wonks, academics, and whatnot behind any given news story. And the role of the news anchor, or columnist, was to step in front of the camera and translate all that work going on in the background for a mass audience. Too often, that meant reducing complicated policy questions to the crude universal language of horse-race analysis, but somewhere off-camera there was, at any rate, a real story to screw up in the telling.
We like to say new media is allowing us all to be journalists. But it’s probably more accurate to say it lets us all be anchors. Sure, the Internet also allows people with local knowledge or serious expertise to speak directly and be picked up by a wider audience, but it doesn’t fundamentally do a whole lot to increase the population of those people. But it radically expands the population of potential anchors chasing them—or, increasingly, chasing each other. And we don’t even have the benefit of a script written by someone who at least got briefed by someone who knows something. So while on the one hand there’s a well-recognized trend toward media fragmentation into deep niches, there’s countervailing pressure toward convergence on a handful of big shallow water-cooler stories. Because if you’re one small bite of the reader’s info-tapas diet, Topic A needs to be something they can jump into without three courses of exposition to start with. And if everyone’s going to get to play anchor, then the folks serving it up each need to be able to add their own precious snowflakes of perspective without too much background either. Culture war froth comes to the fore because it’s one thing we all feel competent to talk about.
That makes Palin the perfect post-postmodern politician, in a way: A totally self-contained text, a signifier with no referent. You don’t really need to know anything to love her or to hate her, because she’s not about anything except… Sarah Palin. Obligingly, she places no demands on either her supporters or her detractors, because what they decide to think of her is all they need to know to decide what to think of her. At the center of her media narrative is… the media’s narrative about her, bouncing down an infinite corridor of mirrors. If Jorge Luis Borges had a talk show on a cable channel run by M.C. Escher, it would look like CNN right now. Welcome aboard the Goodship Palin, now sailing from the desert of the real.
OK, that was cathartic. Back to writing about grown-up stuff.